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Idaho Legislature protects politician pension payoffs -- again

Idaho Legislature protects politician pension payoffs -- again

Dustin Hurst
February 19, 2016
Dustin Hurst
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February 19, 2016

State Rep. Steve Harris, R-Meridian, told IdahoReporter.com Thursday his bill to end Politician Pension Payoffs likely won’t be heard this year. Harris’ bill is an attempt to end the process through which part-time legislators boost their publicly funded pensions by staggering amounts.

Harris didn’t lay specific blame for his proposal’s likely demise, but said his colleagues generally aren’t interested in fixing the problem.

“No one is specifically putting it down,” Harris said via email. “It’s just a non-starter.”

The pension perk works as follows. Legislators serve long terms in the Capitol, while paying small sums into their retirement accounts from their part-time salaries. They then win a gubernatorial appointment to a high-paying state job.
They stay in that post for at least 42 months. After that, all their part-time service in the Capitol is counted as full-time under the high salary rate of the state job.

This skyrockets their annual pension, at the expense of Idaho taxpayers. Pension increases of 500 percent, 600 percent or more are common. Last year, this perk spiked a former legislator’s pension by more than 816 percent.

During the 2015 session, Harris and co-sponsor Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, passed a Politician Pension Payoff fix through a House committee. The fix eventually got to the chamber floor -- despite leadership’s attempts to kill it.

In a zany floor hearing, lawmakers passed the bill on a narrow tally, then took a lunch break. When they returned Rep. John Vande Woude, R-Nampa, successfully motioned for the House to reconsider the plan.

The House leadership team waged an all-out assault on the bill in the second debate. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, literally left his chair, a rarity last session, to address the chamber and speak against the perk-ending bill.

Two House committee chairmen, Reps. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, and Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, joined leadership to oppose the measure during floor deliberations. Hartgen’s vote was notable; he supported the bill in his own committee.

Harris’ bill passed the House a second time, and eventually found its way to the Idaho Senate. Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, stuck it in a favored committee -- where it died.

Many, many legislative leaders have used the political pension perk to cash in, on the back of Idahoans.

Last year, former Republican Sen. Joe Stegner of Lewiston received his pension boost after he served 42 months as a lobbyist for the University of Idaho. After making $130,000 a year in that position, Stegner spiked his pension more than 816 percent.

Gov. Butch Otter told an Idaho Falls TV station last summer the arrangement helps the state attract and retain qualified leaders. In 2015, he appointed four senators to high paying state jobs.

Former Republican Sens. Dean Cameron of Rupert, John Tippetts of Bennington and Bob Geddes of Soda Springs took posts in Otter’s cabinet last year. Each earns more than $100,000 annually; they can spike their pensions 500 to 700 percent after just 42 months on the job.

The pension handout is bipartisan. Otter appointed former Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, to the Public Utilities Commission in February 2015. Werk, with an $87,000-a-year salary, can spike his pension 576 percent if he remains on the job at least 42 months.

Harris’ 2016 bill to end this political perk might have one last chance. He told IdahoReporter.com he plans to run it by Hartgen again in hopes the chairman will grant it a hearing in Hartgan’s House Commerce and Human Resources Committee.

Hartgen has been out most of the 2016 session while he recovers from the flu.

Harris isn’t optimistic. “I’ll pass it by him, but as you recall, [in 2015] he testified against it on the floor after voting for it in committee,” Harris wrote.

Hartgen’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, said he hasn’t talked to Harris about the bill, but said the concept has been discussed. He didn’t offer further details on what those discussions entailed.

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